Mental illness. Physical illness. Why do we react to and treat them so differently? And what harm does that do?
Recently, we marked the anniversary of the death of actor/comedian Robin Williams. Rarely, has the passing of any celebrity generated such an outpouring of both genuine grief and speculation.
The grief is quite understandable of course. Williams career was an amazing one. Though he had more than his share of flops, this was the result of his spirit of experimentation and passion for his work. Williams had a long list of film and other credits, but it is the quality that stands out.
Williams’ comedic work often overshadowed his serious side. Fellow comedian Norm MacDonald penned what may have been the most moving tribute on Twitter, calling Williams the “funniest man in the world”, something no one disputed. But aside from his comedy, Williams was one of the best dramatic actors of his time.
His films weren’t just good. They were the ones that moved you, stuck with you for years after. The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, The Fisher King, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come, the list goes on. Several projects were in the works at the time of his death and some have yet to be released.
Williams committed suicide, hanging himself with a belt. Immediately the speculation centered on his history of depression and substance abuse. Williams had battled both for years, with periods of both success and occasional lapses.
There were reports of paranoia and delusions in his recent past. His television show, ironically titled The Crazy Ones, had just been cancelled.
Not only was it assumed that Williams had died as a result of substance abuse or depression, the speculation even extended to alleged links between depression and comedy, with numerous articles written speculating about a connection between the two, almost none of which discussed actual evidence.
I had hopes that perhaps the death of Robin Williams would serve as something similar to Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he was HIV-positive. Johnson’s message served to both reduce stigma and increase awareness of the disease. A wave of people got themselves tested and Johnson led an educational campaign that was largely successful. He served on George H. W. Bush’s National Commission on AIDS before resigning in protest in 1992, accusing the president of ignoring the commission’s recommendations.
Could Williams’ death have served a similar purpose? Could this have been the moment in which we moved past the stigma we attach to mental illness, addressing it with the same seriousness and sense of purpose we give to other afflictions? Could we have even extended the same level of compassion to those suffering from addictions of various sorts?
Perhaps that moment was available to us. But a little piece of reality intervened. While Williams did commit suicide, it turns out there were no alcohol or illegal drugs in his system. Prescription drugs were present, but at therapeutic levels.
Williams wife reported that he had been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a condition he had not yet chosen to share with the public. The autopsy showed diffuse Lewy body dementia, a condition associated with Parkinson’s which produces symptoms including intense pain and muscle rigidity, coordination problems, and hallucinations. Williams was reported to have become increasingly paranoid near the time of his death.
So, it appears to have been a disease of the brain which showed physical symptoms, rather than a mental health problem or substance abuse that led to Williams’ suicide.
Now here’s a little thought experiment. Some time after the initial media reports, you may have heard about the Lewy body dementia and its role in Williams’ death. Or perhaps you’re reading it here for the first time.
Now the question to ask yourself is this: in some part of your mind, did this make you feel better about Williams? Did you consider him less weak, perhaps even a bit more moral, with the knowledge that his condition was physical, not mental? You can admit it, you probably did. I know a part of me did.
This is the stigma we must fight against. It’s the perception that we all carry that somehow those suffering from mental illnesses should simply push through it, fight harder, and they’d be able to overcome their disease. Just be strong. It doesn’t work because it can’t.
Would you ever tell this to a cancer patient? Of course not. So let’s end the stigma now.
There’s a lot we don’t know about mental illness. But one thing is fairly certain. Judgment isn’t a cure.
— An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Porterville Recorder on August 5th, 2015.
Image: wikipedia: public domain